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What Conservatives Believe

A review of
Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism
(Author: George Hawley)

George Hawley insightfully analyzes several different strands of conservatism—some more fringe than others—demolishing the view of conservatism as a unified movement.  He first describes how “mainstream” conservative orthodoxy has at times been enforced, and then digs into a number of right-wing groups who have been out of the mainstream:

  • localist/communitarian (small) – Hostile to globalism, federalism, urbanization, and/or modernity
  • the secular right (small) – Rationalistic, admirers of Ayn Rand or certain founding fathers
  • mainstream and radical libertarians – “Low-tax liberals” and right-wing antistatists
  • paleoconservatives – Usually Christian, often isolationist, sometimes blood-and-soil racist
  • the European New Right – Against capitalism, Christianity, and America
  • the radical right – White nationalists

I will provide my own observations about each of these, but first I should say a word of summary about mainstream conservatism since the 1960s.  The shortest version is that, until recently, it was dominated by neoconservatives, who advocate a muscular global interventionist policy.  Conservative ideology, though, has long been characterized as a “three-legged stool,” consisting of (1) religious traditionalists, (2) limited-government free marketers, and (3) neocons.

The three do not logically go together, but were united early on in their opposition to communism—for independent reasons, respectively: (1) Marxism’s atheism, (2) Stalin’s socialist totalitarianism, and (3) the Soviet Union’s aggressive expansionism.   The ideological fusion was stable and in fact it calcified over time.  However, with the demise of the communist threat, the debacle of intervention in Iraq, and deindustrialization, conservatism today is in crisis.  Which may provide an opening for groups who have been out of the mainstream.

So, back to the different groups on the right.  Here are some scattered observations on each, with no attempt by me to explain the history, subtleties, or diversity of each philosophy.

Localist/Communitarian

Robert Nisbett was a prominent early defender of this philosophy.  A key idea is that, before the modern era, there were multiple sources of authority in the West; increasingly, however, a greater share of power has been assumed by the central state, and as the state grows, intermediate institutions—including family, church, local government, and associations—decline.  Further (in Hawley’s restatement),

In an atomized society in which individuals live in a state of isolation, the attractiveness of a powerful central state as a source of meaning and belonging will grow.

It is hard to imagine the localist philosophy ever gaining significant political traction.  Regardless, one admirable trait of this political segment, as articulated by Christopher Lasch, is “its moral realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress.”

The Secular Right

Mainstream conservativism is generally either religious or, at least, impeccably respectful of religion.  However, could shifts occur in an age where churchgoing steadily drops, and the number of “nones” (referring to the “none” choice in poll questions about religious affiliation) grows?  Further, which party is the more natural long-term “home” for those of faith: the party of compassion, or the party of self-reliance?  Perhaps conservatism will have to find a way to be more welcoming to secularists.

Libertarians

Libertarians do not like government.  You can find grudging admissions of the need for protection of property rights and the like; however, our society today is so distant from their vision that it is simplest to resent government in its totality.  Unfortunately for libertarianism, the global trend has been that, as countries have gotten richer, welfare and administrative states have grown, seemingly as a law of nature.  The US is certainly no exception, as government expenditures have steadily increased under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Libertarians really have no historical evidence that a purer version of their philosophy would actually work.  They love to point to Stalin’s Soviet Union to show that big-state socialism does not work.  (I’m not sure how they explain modern China’s wild economic success, except maybe with pathetic complaints that “they cheated”…)  Libertarians loudly praise economic theory, while steadfastly avoiding the topics of public goods, externalities, and other market failures.

At a more emotional level, libertarianism seems rather adolescent.  We shouldn’t have to do anything we don’t want, or to be managed by people we don’t know or like.  Yeah!

Paleoconservatives

Hawley’s chapter title for this ideology is “Nostalgia as a political platform.”  Adherents wish we could go back to a better, past era.  For some, the 1950s (pre-civil rights legislation) is it; for others it goes as far back as medieval Europe.  Stating their core principles is not simple.  But Hawley summarizes:

One of the few things we can say definitively about all paleoconservatives is that they dislike neoconservatives and believe they had an invidious effect on the American right; they typically assert that the neoconservatives are not, in fact, conservative at all.

Neocons, in this view, are really liberal elites who have a vested interest in putting egalitarianism and multiculturalism on a pedestal. Paul Gottfried rejects the notion that embrace of these ideals are in the interest of morality or philosophical merits; rather, it serves the interests of an elite that is dependent on a large, centralized government administering social engineering.

By declaring that the state’s primary function is to protect the interests of an ever-expanding group of designated victims, “the expanding central state is authorized to make constant interventions, directly or indirectly, in a wide range of human and commercial relations.” The ruling elite further consolidate their power with the establishment and maintenance of an ideological doctrine—now largely accepted by the mainstream right as well as the left—that elevates pluralism, tolerance, and diversity to supreme moral goals.

Samuel Francis argues that the left controls the educational and media institutions, and that elites are able to direct American society through their dominance of culture more than through their control of the means of production. One may ask whether this control comes as a result of a conscious conspiracy or of a natural sociological order, but, either way, the result is a loss of power for the middle classes.

The Great Hope of the paleoconservatives was Pat Buchanan, who opposed George H.W. Bush for the 1992 nomination on a platform of anti-immigration, isolationism, and protectionism.  He lost, and the prospects for paleoconservatism looked increasingly bleak up through the time that Hawley wrote his book in 2016.

I don’t think I have heard anyone call Trump a paleoconservative.  But I do think paleoconservatism roared back with a vengeance with Trump’s election.  I was surprised at all of the parallels between Buchanan’s philosophy and Trump’s rhetoric.  And it is fascinating, albeit malodorous, how enthusiastically evangelicals have supported Trump.

European New Right

Hawley felt it instructive to include a chapter on this category even though European thought has not played much of a role in American politics.  Surprisingly, the ENR saw commonalities between US liberalism and Soviet-inspired communism: despite an ideological chasm between them, both embraced ideologies that were essentially “modern, materialistic, egalitarian, and cosmopolitan.”

The ENR also takes a dim view of religion:

Like Nietzsche before it, the European New Right blames Christianity for the rise of egalitarian values… The utopianism of modern secular ideologies such as Marxism similarly has roots in the messianic elements of monotheistic religions.

I wonder what Christian intellectuals would have to say about the conceptual origins of Communist eschatology?

The Radical Right

Hawley’s book was written in 2016 prior to Trump’s election.  Subsequently, the so-called alt-right was energized, and Hawley has in fact written new book about it.

I confess that some of my education about this worldview came from reading the Christchurch mosque shooter’s now-banned manifesto.  At its extreme, the fear is of the slow and steady extermination of the white race.

Hawley notes that racism is common throughout the world, and that white nationalism was a de facto policy in the US until the 1960s, but that

…such racialist policies were always at odds with the founding creeds of the nation; a nation ostensibly based on the proposition that all men are created equal has a harder time justifying exclusionary policies than a nation based on a more traditional foundation such as a shared history or language.

* * *

 

Are there any generalizations that can be drawn about all the various strands of conservatism?  While I read the book, one notion that slowly grew on me is how arbitrary each of them are at their core.  As crude illustrations:

    Neoconservative:  “I want America to control the world”
    Localist:  “I don’t trust modern trends”
    Libertarian:  “I don’t like government”, or “I don’t want to be bothered”
    Paleo: “Our religion is all that matters”, or “I want to turn back the clock”
    Radical right:  “Supremacy of my race should be the foundation”

Perhaps more principled versions of each of these could be formulated, but is it not apparent the way in which each is also irrational, or at least very subjective?

Rather ingeniously, Hawley sees a commonality across the various conservative ideologies.   Having acknowledged the great difficulties involved in defining conservativism, liberalism, and progressivism, and after analyzing a variety of definitions of conservatism that others have proposed, he declares:

Throughout this book, the political left will be defined as containing all ideological movements that consider equality the highest political value.

… the right will be defined as encompassing all of those ideologies that, while not necessarily rejecting equality as a social good, do not rank it at the top of the hierarchy of values. The right furthermore fights the left in all cases where the push for equality threatens some other value held in higher esteem.

…such as a religion, repelling government, the white race, etc.

I have alleged that the various conservative sects are founded upon purely subjective values.  Is the left any better?  I don’t think so.  At its core (John Rawls notwithstanding), the “cult of equality” has the same kind of arbitrariness that the other ideologies do:

    Liberal:  “I don’t want some people to have less than others”

It is a great aspiration, but equality is, of course, impossible. Further, aren’t some kinds of inequality perfectly sensible? Should the political leader and the average citizen be equal? The parent and the child, the expert and the layman, the gifted and the feeble?

Less inequality is a very good thing, but to sacrifice all other values until the impossible is reached is not terribly rational.  And (as Hawley said,) when pursuit of equality is perceived to threaten others’ conservative values, it draws attacks.

* * *

 

All ideologies—on the left and on the right—are a problem: they each promise their own version of utopia, thereby blocking the view of reality.

Unfortunately, citizens don’t have time to think about politics, and so politicians and commentators obviously must lean on tropes that will activate those citizens’ subjective ideological propensities. Things might improve somewhat if citizens gained greater awareness about values and ideology, e.g. via Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory. In the meantime, though, few people will be able to explain why they are on the team they are on.

The future is very hazy indeed for conservatism in the US.  The comfortable certainty of the three-legged stool is gone.  And Trump’s reactionary populism doesn’t look like it’s going to gain any more adherents.

Progressives have been moving in to fill the ideological vacuum.  Moving perhaps too quickly?  We shall see.  The one and only prognostication I will make here is that, as the reality of climate change becomes ever more obvious in the coming decades, its mitigation will become the central concern of the left, eclipsing even the demand for equality.

As for mainstream conservatism’s future?  God knows.

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